Thursday, July 5, 2012


Innocence Fritz Zubher-Buhler
 Robert Frost's poem Birches is one of my favorite poems.  The poet reminisces of the simple days of childhood and the carefree fun he had while swinging on the birches in the forest.  But in the second half of the poem, the poet is overcome with nostalgia as he is reminded that the beautiful innocence of childhood is long gone.  In one of the greatest scenes from the AMC series Mad Men, Don Draper is presenting a proposed ad campaign for the Kodak carousel, a projector.  As he makes his pitch, Don offers a short reflection on nostalgia:
Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the carousel. It let's us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved. 
Draper's pitch is attempting to play off of an emotion we all feel in some way or another.  The longing for something in the past that, in our minds, is representative of a simpler and thus seemingly happier time in our life.  For some, the innocence of childhood, when we were blissfully ignorant of all the concerns of the world is a source of strong nostalgia at times.  In Birches, Robert Frost captures that occasional nostalgia for the innocence of childhood so well.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,   
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs   
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping   
From a twig's having lashed across it open.   
I'd like to get away from earth awhile   
And then come back to it and begin over.
There are times when that is exactly how I feel.  The concerns, stresses and cares of the world continually lash us until finally, we just want to get away, to go back to that time when we were ignorant of the stressful world around us.  However, the fact of the matter is, we can never go back to that simpler time.  At some point, that innocence is lost, and it is gone forever.  Love becomes far more difficult, relationships are complicated and decisions are harder and carry so much more weight.  In some ways, I think that only serves to intensify the nostalgia.  I long for something that can never be regained ... and that knowledge is like the pain from an old wound.  And yet at times, I catch glimpses of what innocence was like through memories.  A picture, a song or a place can trigger a strong memory in our mind that brings back the pure unadulterated joy of childhood.  Yet even that is painful since I realize it is only a passing memory that will not last. 

Lest Birches seem unduly melancholic, Frost does temper the nostalgia he feels watching the children swinging on the birch trees.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.


Nostalgia seems to be an unattainable longing for an escape from the struggles of today for the innocence of yesterday.  It may be wrong to try to live in the past, but even the strongest of us cannot help, at times being so battered by the stresses of life, that we do not find ourselves longing for the past ... longing to be as blissfully happy as the children swinging from tree to tree without a care in the world.  Even as I wrote this blog post I am longing for those unattainable memories of my past to be true yet again.The pain of nostalgia has been especially strong lately, and yet, I am reminded of the line from In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson:
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
While I may feel pain over those lost memories, the lost innocence of childhood, I am thankful to at least have them.  For when I am most overcome with pain, they are then, even more of a comfort to my soul.  And I know that while innocence has passed forever, there is still joy to be found here on earth for "Earth's the right place for love," and there are still places where I know I am loved. 

Boys in a Dory Winslow Homer

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